First Impressions: A Chinese Road Trip
October 20, 2011
Arriving for the first time in China during a seven day long national holiday is definitely a treat. When moving to a new and unknown place, several thousand kilometers from home, one must leave all that is familiar and known behind. Before arriving in Beijing I had no idea what to expect, so I did what seemed like the best thing to do and I let down all my cultural barriers and decided to expect nothing. I knew only that I would arrive and set out on a five day road trip down South the following day after landing. The plan was simple, a car, a map and two destinations: Yantai and Qingdao. The drive itself was an experience in and of itself: once outside Beijing, the drivers seemed to be kamikazes and total anarchy ruled the roads, both highways and small town streets alike.
Our first stop and so our first encounter with Chinese rural life was just on the outskirts of Huanghua. Here the roads weren’t complete, and the only signs of life were the little boarded up shops scattered left and right. Fortunately we found a tiny “restaurant” run by a young woman who was more than happy to cook up a quick meal for her first foreign clients while calling over friends and relatives to share the news that foreigners had arrived. What surprised me the most was their warm welcome and genuine curiosity towards us. After lunch, we continued weaving through crazy drivers and dangerous roads, witnessing accidents left and right, as we made our way towards Yantai.
Yantai, a little over 600 km from Beijing, is a little city in the north east of Shandong province located on the southern coast of the Bohai Sea and borders the cities of Qingdao and Weihai. It is the largest fishing seaport in Shandong and a popular domestic tourist location. We settled in the first hotel we could find and awoke the next morning ready for our first day of sightseeing. We set off to the pier for a walk along the beach admiring the particular mix of Chinese and European architecture that developed over the last century as a result of former German colonization in the area. Sitting by the water, we took in the warm sun rays, whilst the local people all hid under sun umbrellas. Soon enough we were surrounded by curious Chinese vacationers who couldn’t help themselves from coming over to question us and take pictures, with and of us. We were quite the attraction and debated whether we should start charging a fee for every photo!
Next stop was a wine tasting event where we worked our foreign charm to get in for free. Once again, they were all more than happy to please our group; so they refilled our glasses and beamed at the compliments we paid the beauty of their local area and the flavor of their wine. We ended the day with a jog through the park up to the Yantai lighthouse making it just in time to catch the sun set.
Our next destination was the Penglai Pagoda in Shandong, noted as one of the four great towers of China and landing place of the Eight Immortals as well as a common domestic tourist attraction. Here again we were the only foreigners! The views of the pagoda standing on top of Penglai Mountain were spectacular and the (strenuous) walk along the tower bridge hovering a hundred meters over the rocky beach was quite fascinating.
Qingdao was our final destination, another seaside city, and as luck would have it the beach was just a few minutes walk from our hostel and the weather was still surprisingly pleasant. Shortly after admiring the Qingdao pier pagoda we were ready for the main attraction, the Tsingtao Brewery. China’s second largest brewery, founded in 1903 by German settlers and which now claims about 15% of domestic market share.
The original brewery of Tsingtao, one of China’s most popular beers, is in the seaside town of Qingdao. Wandering the streets of this busy town, you encounter a beer-drinker’s dream: people selling fresh brews from kegs on the sidewalk. Something that really amused us were the nice cold beers handed to you in a tightly tied plastic bag with a convenient straw poked in. Just be careful your bag doesn’t rip!
By now we were pretty used to our popularity and we received our final act of validation after entering what seemed to be the town’s hippest (and possibly only) club. Once inside we were quickly spotted out and before we knew it we were invited to join various tables, offered drinks and fruit, questioned as to where we were from and what brought us there. No one cared to hide their gushing excitement as they (literally) embraced us!
Many people speak of culture shock, but I haven’t really been shocked by anything, yet. I have been pleasantly surprised by an array of things, first and foremost the courtesy and politeness of most local people, whether you are trying to order food in a restaurant or buy a bus ticket, they will smile and try their best to understand what you wish to have while chatting away in Chinese in hopes that you will understand something. They seem to be quite used to helpless, non-Chinese speaking foreigners such as myself and often go to great lengths to help.
After only a week I am still quite in-experienced and new to everything here, but I am confident that with a positive, open mind and a “ready to try anything” attitude (except for chicken feet of course), Beijing, and China, will continue to surprise me.
- Melanie Hirsch- CPG Marketing Intern